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Local AFL-CIO Council Lobs “Anti-Labor” Charge at DC Mayor
The legal dispute over $36 million in back pay for firefighters continues. By Harry Jaffe
Comments () | Published April 22, 2013

Pressure mounted Monday on Mayor Vincent Gray to pay DC firefighters $36 million in back pay they contend the city owes them for overtime dating back to 2001.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO issued a resolution Monday afternoon supporting the firemen and called Gray’s attempt at withholding payment “anti-labor, absolutely inappropriate” and in direct contradiction of the city’s attempt to gain budget autonomy from Congress.

The battle over the $36 million is complex and longstanding, but it reached a new stage this month when Gray included in his budget a request that Congress resolve the back pay dispute. By asking Congress to step into a local matter, Gray runs the risk of coming off as hypocritical in current and future attempts to free the District from federal control. 

The AFL-CIO’s statement increased the heat on Gray on two levels.

First, the Fire Fighters Local 36 and the larger AFL-CIO council don’t always get along. But the city is fighting other unions on back pay issues, so they share an enemy.

“It shows that labor is going to stay united on this issue,” says Ed Smith, the firefighters union president. “We expect the mayor to stand by the collective bargaining agreements.”

Second, it threatens Gray’s union support, now and if he considers running for a second term. Says Smith: “On one hand you have the mayor trying to paint a rosy picture of him and labor. But you have this going on behind the scenes.”

The battle over the $36 million goes back to the 1990s, when a federal financial control board oversaw city finances. To get a handle on spending, the control board attempted to nullify all negotiated overtime provisions. The firemen claimed the control board had no such power, and courts agreed. The city then asked Congress to give it the power, which it did, but only for one year. The congressional act expired in 2001, and the city neglected to renew it.

In 2007, the firefighters presented the city with the $36 million bill for accrued overtime, but the city refused to pay. It argued that the control board's nullification was still in effect. The union appealed to the Public Employee Relations Board, which ruled for the firemen. The city appealed that decision to DC Superior Court, but a judge affirmed the PERB ruling in a second win for the union.

The city has appealed that decision, but its lawyers have little hope of winning. As a last resort, the city appealed to Congress to retroactively enforce the 2001 Appropriations Act that wiped out the union agreements on overtime.

On the legal front, Gray has twice been defeated. By going over the unions and the courts to Congress, he’s vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. And on the political side, he opens himself up to critics in the city council who will contend with him over labor support.

City officials were not available for comment, but they have told Washingtonian in the past that the DC budget is too tight to pay out the $36 million, and they feel certain they don't owe the cash.

Neither side is giving in, but at this point, labor has the edge. 

Update (4/22/13 at 5 PM): Read Mayor Gray’s response to Monday’s resolution from the AFL-CIO council.

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  • Stephen Kuhn

    Owing a debt and paying that debt is an exclusive action, one does not say to one's debtors, "I will pay my debt if you do such and such.", one simply pays the debt. For the mayor to suggest that he will consider paying a bill for services rendered but that he will only do so if certain provisions are met is mutually exclusive, I believe politicians are fond of referring to this as "comparing apples to oranges". Perhaps a course in Logic 101 offered at one of the many acclaimed institutions of higher learning located within the confines of the District of Columbia is in order.

  • Dabney Hudson

    Mr. Jaffe,

    First and foremost I would like to thank you for bringing this very important
    issue to light, it is however unfortunate, the Mayor doesn't see this in the
    same way. My name is Dabney Hudson and I would like to take the time to respond
    to Mayor Gray's response to your article. His "logic" affects me in
    several ways as I wear many hats in regards to the Fire & Emergency Medical
    Services department: operationally I am a Sergeant assigned to the Capitol Hill
    Firehouse, I also serve as the Second Vice President of the DC Firefighters Association
    Local 36, lastly, and unfortunately the most important in the mind of the mayor,
    I am a resident of ward 5. In his response Mr. Gray outlines how we have
    arrived in the situation that he now faces. He cites the “inherent unpredictability”
    of the appeals process as his reason for the last ditch effort to run to the
    hill begging for them to relieve the city of their responsibility to the
    employees of the Fire & EMS Department. I do not view it as a liability to fellow
    residents and myself; rather, I see it as a payment for the work both my
    co-workers and I performed as outlined in the contract between the employees of
    Local 36 and the City. How would one expect the District to be an employer of
    choice when the Executive officer for the city attempts to undermine and
    violate contracts he has bargained with the current employees’? I believe most
    logical adults would agree with me in this situation. I recently read an
    article where the city touts garnishing tax returns as a means of collecting
    outstanding debts to the District displaying the Mayors resolve that those that
    are indebted to the city should pay up. Funny he doesn’t feel this way when the
    shoe is on the other foot! It is unfortunate the man that so proudly touts
    being arrested in a public display for statehood and full budget autonomy runs
    to Congress to alleviate the District of Columbia from their contractual and
    legal obligations to their employees. Unfortunately this isn’t the only
    contradiction in the mayor’s response to your article. He states he is not
    going to “unilaterally increase overtime” due to the fact that our “negotiations”
    are at impasse. Although we are at impasse the current contract calls for the
    District to pay employees time and a half overtime for all hours worked in
    excess of 42 hours. This provision is nothing new as it has been a part of our
    contract since 2007. If this obligation is such a liability to my fellow
    residents, why didn’t the mayor take appropriate action years earlier when he
    filled the role of council chair? Instead he chose to do nothing and watch the
    liability steadily increase with each passing year as the employees were
    improperly compensated for the work they performed. Finally Mayor Gray talks
    about the need for a change in the shift myself and my co-workers currently
    work. Prior to beginning negotiations Mayor Gray very publically agreed that a
    change in work hours should be a subject for collective bargaining; however,
    his negotiating team’s mantra for the entire process has been shift change or
    no deal. This is very far from the “negotiations” the Mayor speaks to in his
    response to your article. As unfortunate as the events that occurred during the
    Boston Marathon were the response from the public safety workers in Boston was
    nothing short amazing and certainly had a positive impact on the patient
    outcomes for those that were affected. Mayor Gray questions the ability of this
    department to respond to a similar event was it to occur in the District of
    Columbia. He is right to question this, yet his emphasis is in the wrong place.
    It is my belief the Department would not be able to properly respond to this
    incident, not because of where our employees live, but because of Fire Chief
    Kenneth Ellerbe, an appointment made by Mayor Gray, has run the Fire & EMS
    Department into the ground. We have no spare vehicles to place in service, he
    has pushed many of our paramedics to quitting (there were 8 Medic units
    downgraded that day as well as 1 Paramedic engine) we have over 200 vacancies
    in the operations division alone and he has created such a hostile work
    environment that many workers have filed for assistance from the federal EEO
    office, and this just scratches the surface. All in all Mr. Jaffe, Mayor Gray’s
    response was to your article was about as honest as his 2010 campaign!

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Posted at 03:45 PM/ET, 04/22/2013 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Blogs